Jeremy Cunningham Makes Cathartic Jazz About Grief and Gun Violence

After his brother's death, the Resavoir drummer enlisted Makaya McCraven, Jeff Parker, and more for new album 'The Weather Up There.'
February 28, 2020, 5:48pm
Jacob Hand / Northern Spy Records

In January 2008, jazz drummer Jeremy Cunningham's little brother Andrew was murdered in a home invasion robbery. Two men, armed with AK-47s, broke into the younger Cunningham's Cincinnati apartment and killed him after his roommate escaped. This tragic, violent loss was the catalyst for Cunningham's new album The Weather Up There, a raw document of grief that's one of the most affecting jazz albums in recent memory.

"I knew making this would be hard and would take me into places that maybe I didn't want to go. But ultimately I wanted this story to be out there because I want people to think about what gun trauma and violence does to a person and their family," says Cunningham over drinks at a beer bar on the north side of Chicago. He adds, "The thing that still blows my mind about it is the effects of this loss just travel on forever. I was thinking of those cheesy cosmetics commercials where a drop of water lands in a pool and just ripples out. That's grief. It goes out in all directions endlessly."

As a member of the city's adventurous jazz community, he's a journeyman who's played with trumpeter Marquis Hill, saxophonist Nick Mazzarella, and drummer Makaya McCraven and is currently in the rising International Anthem-signed group Resavoir as well as Lane Beckstrom and Knox Fortune's live bands.

The Weather Up There showcases Cunningham's collaborative and genre-fusing spirit, enlisting a marquee cast of local mainstays like McCraven, multi-instrumentalist Ben Lamar Gay, trumpeter Jaime Branch, drummer Mike Reid, multi-instrumentalist Mikel Patrick Avery, cellist Tomeka Reid, saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi, bassist Matt Ulery, and saxophonist Josh Johnson. Songs like "1985," which Cunningham says was inspired by memories of listening to his mother's Rolling Stones records with his brother as kids, feels alive with rollicking, rock'n'roll energy that flaunts jazz conventions.

Co-produced by Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker and Paul Bryan, the LP also features a collage of interviews Cunningham conducted with his family and friends of his brother. It's a gut-wrenching portrait of loss as songs like the drum-centric "All I Know" highlight his father's recollection of finding out his brother had died, while"Elegy" stitches together these sad interviews across a tense, angry six-and-a-half minutes. Perhaps the most cathartic moment on the record comes in "Return These Tides," where Ben Lamar Gay sings an improvised melody over a poem Cunningham wrote reflecting on the loss: "I can't pretend that I'm whole anymore. I was split in two."

Cunningham spoke with VICE about his 12-year journey of reeling from his brother's death to finding catharsis in making this record. "I think I've been writing this record since the day he died," he says. He continues, "The only thing that I really have that I can do for him is the music that I make. I started to take little things from all of these experiences and the songs started to happen in a way that I felt like maybe I could write something that would be good enough to address this trauma that happened to me and my family." Read on for the full conversation.

The tragic events that inspired this record happen in 2008 when you were living in Cincinnati. What brought you to Chicago?
I graduated from the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music's jazz program. I was touring around with these and playing in an avant-garde hip hop band. I was floating around during this time. It was the same year and my brother had died and it was just tough all around: brother died, I got testicular cancer, which I had thankfully caught early, and then my girlfriend at the time broke up. It was like one thing after another. I needed to be touring all the time so I could have an escape which was necessary. I started dating the person who'd become my wife and we decided to live in the same city so we moved to Chicago in 2009. I had friends here who were already playing here but I didn't know anything about Chicago music.

When I moved here, I started meeting other jazz players which is how I met [trumpet player] Marquis Hill and I ended up playing in his band for three and a half years. Besides just modern jazz, I kept meeting people who were doing different things like Jeff Parker and Nick Mazzarella. Same goes for drummer Mike Reid, who sort of became my mentor and drum buddy.

How were you holding up as a person during your first couple of years here?
I wasn't. I was just trying to push through. I was a bit of a mess, drinking too much and trying to cope. Playing music with people was definitely helping. I talked to my aunt about how I was feeling pretty numb and hopeless a lot. The aftermath of my brother's death really made me distrust human beings. We're really capable of doing terrible things. She then recommended a grief counselor near the city and it was really helpful. She did this technique called EMDR, which was originally used and really successful in helping Vietnam veterans who had serious trauma from the war. And she did that to me. It reprocesses your memories in a way and your perception of events that have happened to you. After that one session, I walked out of there feeling like I could see color in the world again. I felt a little bit lighter and that really helped me. I don't know where I would necessarily be without that because that's sort of like took me out of something that was really holding me down. A tune that I wrote on my album, "It's Nothing" is sort of about that feeling I had before that therapy.

The way you started conceptualizing this album also came from a conversation with drummer Mike Reid, who's also on the LP. What did he tell you?
I was hanging out with Mike at this bar called Hungry Brain and I was telling him about my plans to write a record about my brother's death and how I wanted to focus on what happens to a family and a community after the fact. He listened and said, "you're really just going to write a record about how your brother died? What are you going to tell your newborn daughter about your brother when she's old enough to know about him? It's not just going to be about the horrible way he died." That made me think of all the really fond memories of riding BMX bikes and skateboards, playing in the woods, and listening to records. He said, "shouldn't that also be in there too?"

That perspective shaped how I approached this record and changed the entire concept: it's not enough to just focus on the loss. You can't see a person's life just from the circumstances of their death. Like "1985," which focuses on the good memories, the song "Hike" was written when I was walking with my daughter and feeling lucky that I had some beautiful things in my life. That's what the album has become for me: a picture of his life in the best way that I could do it.

What was it like interviewing your family, your friends, and your ex about Andrew's death for the album?
I started interviewing family members and friends because I knew I needed a wider perspective for this to make sense. Cause it's just not, it's not just me, it's all of these people who were affected by this. It was tough. To hear people that you really care about and you love talk about how they're still affected, you feel some solidarity but you also want to take that pain away somehow. Losing someone is devastating and it takes a long time. Everyone is still processing it.

After 12 years, I knew it was necessary to get their voices because it's not just about my reflection, it needed to be about their reflection of what happened. Having all those voices on it would let the listener be able to actually feel some of that weight that they're carrying around and think about this issue. After Sandy Hook, I thought for sure we would make changes in this country but nothing has happened. There needs to be sweeping federal legislation.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.